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James Franklin In The Eye of the Media Storm

The winds are shifting in favor of the Nittany Lions.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

When James Franklin took the head coaching job at Penn State there were considerable headwinds caused by negative media coverage of the football program. The ship was in stormy seas, taking on water, fighting to stay afloat amidst the battering waves of criticism. The sails were partially destroyed while fighting back the vicious tentacles of the NCAA sanctions. The team would have to move forward with a score of shipmates fewer than the full boat maximum. Those who were considering boarding the vessel were often scared away by the mention of that pesky white whale, Moby Emmert, always out on the horizon, threatening to return at any time.

Now it seems that the football team is going to need a bigger boat. The jaws of the media appetite have been satiated, in fact, the wind now seems to be at the back of Franklin’s battleship, one that has the name Sandy written on its hull.

The long-winded media negativity was part of the deal that Franklin accepted in taking the job at Penn State. Bill O’Brien fought back for two seasons when they came with pitchforks and torches, defending the very existence of the program. The challenge was less dire for Franklin, but there was still very little room for him to play offense in the media narrative until recently. Success on the field and a universal positive anticipation of the coming season has allowed him to push back at times where he may have remained silent in the past.

Today we take a look at some recent statements that coach Franklin has made, which appear to be designed to keep the reporters that cover the team in their proper place.

James and the Giant Preach

A couple of weeks prior to the Blue-White game Franklin began a press conference by clarifying an inaccurate story that was repeated in various media outlets.

Doing a basic search for the phrase “James Franklin interrupts class,” will provide several pages of examples of media outlets that misreported the facts of that story. While some may think this is a petty point, coach Franklin wanted to clarify the situation. In this new world order with social media being the leading edge of the news sword, a rush to get information out has created a void between the reported news and reality. So worried that an organization will be a day late and a dollar short, missing out on the wave of clicks that a story that is published in haste may garner, there is a tsunami of news stories that are a day early and a dime short. Without checking sources or cultivating the facts, instead glancing to see if a social media account has been verified, reporters drop counterfeit dimes one day and then act as though it didn’t happen the next.

A vastly false scenario was constructed out of whole cloth by the misleading information that was disseminated by the media. There is a reason that the English language has a word for invite and a separate word for interrupt. Those who peddle in letters and words should know the difference.

The word interrupt invokes visions of a man that was sitting back in his office chair, feet up on the desk, nothing in particular to do with his time, so he decided to interrupt the scholastic pursuits of the university for his own entertainment. It implies that the football coach has the right or ability to halt the proceedings of a professor’s lecture at a whim. The word invite is indicative of a request for the incredibly busy man’s time that was granted in the name of improving the academic product at Penn State.

Throughout the course of a season there are many times when the media will question the decisions made by a head coach. While being critical of the x’s and o’s that play out on the football field, it is fair to ask that the media take responsibility for the ones and zeros that comprise the tweets that they send and the words that the eyes of their readers encounter.

As my grandfather used to say, “If you don’t like the heat, remove your head from your backside.” Papa had a way of turning a phrase. We could usually figure out what he was trying to say.

Playing Press Coverage on the Media

It is clear that the media and James Franklin do not have a reciprocal relationship; he is the head football coach of the reigning Big Ten Champion and we are not. We don’t write articles one day, call plays the next. Nor does he have the right to dictate which words or narratives we choose in our articles. While our responsibilities are very different, we share the duty of doing our job to the best of our ability.

A few weeks later Franklin issued an opportunity for the members of the working media to take part in special teams drills during halftime of the Blue-White game.

Some onlookers and media members took this challenge in a negative light initially, as though Franklin was implying that someone asserted that they could perform better than the team. Others saw it as a way to neutralize some of the negative coverage of the players, allowing the media to experience for themselves just how hard it is to catch a punt in front of 85,000 fans.

While Franklin may have, in some sensitive reporter’s eyes, inched his toe across an imaginary line that protects their honor, does the media have a clean record with their footwork?

I remember the first time I heard the saying, “Those who have lily pad houses should not throw frogs.” Initially my thoughts were that nobody, whether living in a regular house or a lily pad house, should throw frogs. Then I realized that it was just another nugget of wisdom from my old grand pappy.

Maybe in the future the media will remember what it feels like to be standing under a punt in Beaver Stadium, wanting nothing in the world more than to catch the ball. It isn’t the same experience that a young Penn State player has while making the first punt return of a career, but it was close enough to give those who took part an idea of what the players are up against. The feeling will remind those who are gazing down from the catered ivory tower in the press box just how difficult it is to succeed on the football field.

There will be plenty of times that the team will be eligible for justified criticism. When you put yourself out there, willing to give every inch of what you have, toes dangling over the edge, no safety net, there are times when you fall.

Some in the media had a recent encounter with failure on the football field and it was a humbling experience. Next season when they have a frog in their hands, flipping it around, searching to get their fingertips on the laces, maybe they will set it down and consider the disappointment that the team and those involved with the program are feeling.

This challenge by coach Franklin may have been geared toward helping the media understand what it is like to be on the playing field, vulnerable, and to have others critique their performance. It may lead to the facts being reported in a more generous tone.

More Than Just A Salesman

Another narrative that Franklin has begun to unwind is that he is mostly a recruiter or the type of head coach that passes responsibility down to his assistants. While it is an asset to be able to bring in the talent that he has over the past few years, coach Franklin pointed out that he feels that there is a lot more going on at Penn State than simply his being a good salesman. In fact, he feels if there is any one specialty that the program can offer to an incoming recruit, it is the ability to development their skills, on and off the field.

Many of the talented recruits that Franklin has brought to State College have yet to make an impact on the field. Those that have made appearances in the first couple seasons of their college career have been outstanding. This season will be the first during Franklin’s tenure that the majority of the players that touch the field will be part of his recruiting efforts. In fairness, if he is supposedly more of a recruiter than coach, he has been able to accomplish amazing levels of success with a roster that was far less talented than it will be in the coming seasons.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

If the natural and appropriate delineation between a coach and the media were represented as the 50 yard line of a football field, the game has been played on Franklin’s side of the field for his first three seasons at Penn State.

The media drove deep into Penn State territory during the early post-Paterno years. The NCAA got off a coffin-corner punt that left the Lions standing with their heels on the goal line. It has taken a half-dozen years for the program to get back out of the shadows of the goal post.

It appears that Franklin is using the goodwill capital that he has gained with the success on the field last season to move the line of scrimmage between the program and the media back to the 50 yard line. This off-season may be seen as the eye of the media storm, one without a heavy dose of doubt or criticism permeating the slower news months. The negative energy has passed overhead and now the sky is Penn State blue for the summer, dotted with just a few fair-weather clouds. In the fall, the media wind may very well push the team forward rather than impede its progress as it has in recent times.